Chances are, if you’re nearing the end of the hiring process, your potential employer is asking for references. Professional references are people you’ve worked with who can vouch for your skills and work ethic. Your skills look good on paper, but potential employers want to know more about your performance from someone who’s experienced them firsthand.
In fact, surveys show that 87% of employers do background screening at the pre-employment stage, and that 78% of job applicants stretch the truth on their resumes. Employers want to know that you have the experience and really are whom you claim to be.
Choosing the right professional references means listing colleagues who can vouch for your abilities and their quality. A good word from former coworkers, supervisors, or managers can make all the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter — so choose wisely.
What are professional references?
Professional references are connections who can speak to your professional character and experience. Recruiters and hiring managers use this information to see who you are as a person and a potential employee, and to confirm facts about your resume and skills.
References usually fill out a form, answer a phone call, or write a letter to future employers, answering questions about your skills, qualifications, and ethics. By submitting a positive reference about your abilities, they let recruiters know you have what it takes for a position.
Personal vs. professional reference
There are two types of references: professional and personal. Employers may ask for one or both, depending on the position. Most of the time, they’ll only need professional ones.
Professional references usually come from previous managers or supervisors. They discuss your strengths and weaknesses in a work environment, like your organizational skills and how you take feedback from higher-ups.
Personal references, also called character references, are more common early in your career or for social positions. They can be peers rather than colleagues. Someone who knows you outside of work, like a close friend or teacher, can provide a personal reference about your soft skills and personality.
If you have several years of experience, choose references that can speak to skills relevant to the job you’re applying for. Your supervisor from an internship five years ago likely can’t vouch for your current abilities. And if you’ve changed industries, someone who knows your new skill set will be more valuable to the hiring team.
Why do organizations require references?
References prove your identity and confirm that your described work experience and skills are accurate. Asking for references is usually the last step in the hiring process, and if an organization is doing it, there’s a good chance they plan on extending a job offer.
In some workplaces, professional references are often a formality. Recruiters and HR personnel just want to do their due diligence to make sure you’re the right person for the job. They don’t want to be caught off-guard if you lied about your skills or character.
Who to ask for a reference
Deciding who to ask is the first step towards a stellar professional reference. Choose someone who can provide in-depth information about your work experience, performance, and skills. A coworker is a great source, but a manager or supervisor might know your strengths and weaknesses better. Your time working together should also be relatively recent.
The best references are former bosses, project leaders, supervisors, or managers. Not only have they seen your work ethic and abilities, but they also know how you take direction and improve over time. As a higher-up, they have a better understanding of how you fit into a team and interact with coworkers.
If you’re early in your career and don’t have a lot of references, ask a trusted supervisor or communicate gently with human resources at your current job. Former professors or course instructors can also speak to your skill and work ethic in certain industries.
And if you’re really having problems finding professional references, there’s a chance that potential employers will understand if you explain kindly.
With that said, it’s always best to have at least one reference. Hiring managers usually ask for 2–3 references, so if you can, prepare four in case someone isn’t available.
Who not to ask for a reference
On top of verifying your identity and experience, hiring managers want to know if your former team would recommend you (or if they wouldn’t). A previous employer might confirm your experience but hesitate to sing your praises, which isn’t a good look if you want to get hired.
If you’ve been let go from a previous role or had bad experiences with a former employer, you shouldn’t include them as a reference. They could speak badly about you and jeopardize your chances of getting a job. It’s not worth the potential consequences.
If you’re not sure whether someone would be a good reference, feel free to ask. Former coworkers likely won’t hesitate to tell you if they don’t feel they’d be a good reference.
Current teammates also aren’t the best choice for a professional reference. You could put yourself (and them) in an awkward position with your employer when you hand in your two-week notice.
If you’re trying to keep your job hunt secret to avoid jeopardizing your current role, only ask team members you know you can trust. Don’t ask them until you’re sure you want to leave, and let them know they can decline if they feel uncomfortable.
How to ask for a reference
The best time to organize references is when you begin your job search. Contact your ideal references to let them know you’re re-entering the job market and ask if they can vouch for you. Email is a good way to reach out because it gives them time to decide. Calling can catch them off guard.
If it’s been a while since you worked together, remind them of your role and relationship. Specify what kind of new position you’re looking for so they can think about your relevant skills. It helps to send them an updated resume and the job posting so they know what to highlight when talking about you.
Here’s a professional reference example request email to use as a template.
Dear [full name],
I hope you’re doing well.
I’ve recently decided to explore new employment opportunities. I’m emailing to ask if you can provide a professional reference for me. After working on [project] together, I believe you can speak to my skills and abilities in a [type of role]. Attached is my resume to show you what I’ve accomplished since leaving [company].
Please let me know if you’re able to be a reference. I can let you know when to expect contact from potential employers, but it would be during the next few months.
Thank you in advance for the help. Let me know soon if you’re interested, and I’d love to be a helpful reference for you as you advance in your career.
Once you receive a yes, add them to your reference list. Don’t add someone without their permission. If they receive a call without expecting it, they might forget key details and simply not appreciate the lack of communication.
Keep references up-to-date and let them know when to expect a request for referral. Advance warning helps them tailor their answers ahead of time to help you stand out. For instance, if you’ve made it to the final rounds of an interview process and think you might receive an offer, give your references a heads up.
And finally, always communicate with your references. Just like following up after an interview, thank anyone who’s generously provided a recommendation. They’ll appreciate the gratitude, and it strengthens your relationship with them for the future. You never know: they could offer valuable career advice or notify you of a job you’d be a good fit for.
How to list references on a resume
Unless a job application requests them, don’t list (or even mention) references on a resume. Save your resume real estate to list your education, qualifications, work history, and whatever else helps you stand out from the crowd.
But keep references in your back pocket. Potential employers could ask for them at any point, including during an interview, so contact references in advance. If the company wants to hire you, the last thing you want is a delay for a reference reply.
When presenting a list of references, include this information about every person:
- Current job title
- Current employer
- Phone number
- Email address
- The dates you worked together
Here’s an example of formatting for a reference list:
[reference job title]
[reference phone number]
[reference name] was my [position] while at [company]. We worked closely between 2023-02-02T14:00:00Z and 2023-02-02T14:00:00Z to meet the [department] team’s goals and grow [measurable].
Make your references count
Whether you’re leaving a current role or starting from scratch, looking for a new job can be incredibly stressful. Plan ahead and stay on good terms with colleagues and supervisors so you’re not scrambling to find professional references when the time comes.
Having strong references is just one part of an application. Most of the process will focus on your experience and abilities. But having someone who can vouch for your skills and talent ensures hiring managers see how strong an applicant you really are.